Theory, Habit and Agency

There is one image of the relationship between theory and human agency that I would like to problematize. This image suggests that human beings have certain theories and as a result of these theories they act in certain ways. On this image it as if the person engaged in sexual ecstasy is applying a theory of how to engage in sex. This image not only seems wrongheaded because it gives an implausible image of our agency, it is also problematic because it makes us think that the theories that people seem to buy into are what is fundamentally responsible for the state of the world. Theories certainly influence the world, but are rather one factor among many, rather than the dominant factor ruling our world.

It should seem obvious that while the theories we have influence our action they are often not the sole guide to our action as human agency tends towards the habitual and prereflective. We go about our day to day lives doing things habitually without really thinking about what we are doing. It is only at particular moments like when we encounter a problem or find ourselves captured by an insight that we begin to think theoretically about what we ought to do. At these moments theory seem to be the fundamental cause of our action, but when we are actually habitually we are acting on a prereflective understanding of the world which is often opaque to ourselves and not linguistically articulated. For example, when I play my guitar I do not think in order to play this song I need to hold my hand in this way, and move my hand this many times. Instead I have an embodied understanding of how to play this song and I can thoughtlessly engage in playing it. In fact it is when I start thinking about how to play the song that I stop being able to play the son well because my mind is then split between this embodied prereflective understanding of playing the song and more explicit thoughts. Of course when we learn to play a song on the guitar we have to think to get through it, but once we have developed the capacity to play it our understanding is a prereflective (or nonreflective) embodied understanding, as opposed to a theoretical understanding. Furthermore, this is not unique to the playing of instruments. When a kind person offers their seat to someone who needs it on the bus they typically do not do so thinking I ought to be kind, but rather just respond to the situation based on a prereflective sense of what they ought to do. Consequently, this theorycentric view of agency seems deeply problematic and implausible. For the sake of consistency I will refer to the view of agency critiqued above as “the theorycentric view.”

Nonetheless, while the theorycentric view seems implausible when we reflect it still seems to be the underlying assumption of a lot of social criticism and commentary on society. For example, we often hear that the reason for the decay of modern society is that the theories that people accept such as the notion of authenticity, or the theory of liberal individualism leads people to be selfish, narcissistic and vapid. These critiques seem to suggest that what is afflicting modern society is bad theories that are leading us to act badly. But if my critique of theorycentric view of agency is correct than it seems that this positing of theory as the reason behind modern problems is at best hyperbole, and at worst deeply misleading.

Certainly, the theories that people adopt will impact their actions but this is not the only factor impacting their action. Instead, in addition to the theories that people hold, the traits, habits, dispositions, qualities and embodied understandings that people possess will also impact their activity. For example, I can think of many times in my life where I have engaged in some action as a result of a habit or disposition that was opposed to one of the theories that I held about the world. In particular, I loathe cowardice at a theoretical level, but because I have developed the habit of being agreeable, polite and somewhat conflict averse I sometimes will not challenge people’s ideas even when I find them repugnant. On reflection this failure to challenge is a mark of cowardice, as at that moment I lacked the courage to stand up for what I believe in. As a result we can see that theories are not the fundamental cause underlying the state of the world, as there are other factors at play, such as habit and embodied understandings, which seem to be at least equally determinative of our actions and consequently the state of the world. Therefore, it seems that social criticism cannot just focus on being critical of people’s ideas, but rather must focus on fully understanding and critiquing the habits, dispositions and embodied understandings that people have, as these nontheatrical elements of agency impact action and are not reducible to any particular theory that people hold.


Some thoughts on The Wolf of Wall Street

After having watched The Wolf of Wall Street I went online to do some reading about it. It seems that there has been a tendency to see this film as merely a critique of white collar crime and its treatment within the USA, or as a glorification of a hedonistic, money-obsessed way of life. While neither of these descriptions of this film is entirely inaccurate, it seems to me that this film has a meaning that goes beyond this opposition. This film helps us articulate the tension between the pursuit of sensuous pleasure and the development of what is best in one`s self, and suggests that the latter is not expendable and should not be replaced with purchasable sensuous pleasures.

The Wolf of Wall Street tells the story of the rise of Jordan Belfort, and is based off his memoirs. Jordan Belfort becomes a stock broker in the late eighties and after the crash of 1987 finds a way to make vast amounts of money off penny stocks through very dishonest and manipulative sales tactics. His ascent continues as he begins to engage in more explicitly illegal activities to make more money such as money laundering and stock fraud. Ultimately, he makes his fortune largely by cheating people. At the end of the film Jordan is caught and he informs to the FBI about his associates and friends in order to get a reduced sentence. In the end he only serves three years at a ritzy country club prison, and after he is out he continues to make a fortune as a motivational speaker and sales trainer.

Jordan’s life seems to be a never-ending series of parties and money making schemes. He is a drug addict with a particular weakness for Alcohol, Quaaludes and Cocaine, and is presented as being nearly constantly high or drunk. Furthermore, while he has two beautiful wives over the course of the film, he has regular encounters with prostitutes to satiate his urges. His life seems thus to center around the pursuit of sensuous pleasure; this sensuous pleasure takes various forms for Jordan including the pleasure of making the sale, taking drugs or having casual sex. However, somewhat surprisingly, Jordan does not present his life as meaningless, empty or shallow instead he presents his drug and sex fueled escapades as being exhilarating, engaging and fun. In fact, late in the film Jordan gets sober and he comments to his friend that being sober is extremely boring and that he wants to kill himself. These words reveal Jordan’s genuine sense that the life that he ought to be living is one filled with as much drugs as possible. Consequently Jordan Belfort is a person who is totally committed to the pursuit of sensuous pleasure. He is uninhibited by any sense that the pursuit of this set of goods is ultimately unimportant, and there seems little in his life besides these sensuous pleasures.

Our first reaction to Jordan Belfort is likely one of contempt. He does not seem to be doing anything good or meaningful with his life, and he lacks any visible empathy for the victims of his crimes. And this is the sense in which it is true that this film serves as a critique of white collar crime, as we are presented with a wholly unsavory white collar criminal who seems to have little to no redeeming qualities and goes relatively unpunished for his misdeeds. But on the other hand while we feel contempt for Jordan, I think we also have a hidden desire to have a life like his. Many inhabitants of contemporary liberal capitalist society spend a good portion of their free time drinking and pursuing casual sex. While this kind of activity is distinct from Jordan Belfort’s debauchery it is similar in being also directed at sensuous pleasure, and thus we are not so distant from Jordan Belfort in that we too are often driven by the pursuit of sensuous pleasure. Consequently, while we have contempt for Jordan we also see his life as rich in a certain variety of pleasure that we also tend to desire. This conflicting set of judgments about Jordan and his life shows the way in which The Wolf of Wall Street can be said to illuminate the tension between the pursuit of sensuous pleasure and the development of what is best in one’s self, as we at once disrespect Jordan because he has failed to develop what is best in himself, but recognize that we too participate in the desires that he seems to be absolutely driven by. In this way this film helps us articulate a tension that exists within us between our desire for sensuous pleasure and our concern that we develop what is best in ourselves.

The pursuit of sensuous pleasure should be fairly self-evident by this point in the entry, but I do need to say a few things to clarify the notion of developing what is best in one`s self. The development of what is best in one`s self offers no guarantee of sensuous pleasure, and instead is a form of striving to see that one`s best qualities are fully realized. For example, if I have the capacity for courage I only realize this capacity to its fullest by facing situations that I fear and facing those fears with courage. Over time, this practise will begin to shape who I am and I will become more courageous. As a result the development of what is best in one`s self takes time, commitment and practise, and unlike sensuous pleasure cannot be purchased through money.

Jordan seems to have little concern for developing what is best in himself, rather his ultimate concern seems to be sensuous pleasure, whether it is the sensuous pleasure of drugs, sex or the sale. Whereas most members of the audience are likely in conflict between the pursuit of sensuous pleasure and the development of what is best in themselves, as they wander between moments of pursuing one goal to pursuing the next, Jordan is only driven by the pursuit of sensuous pleasure. Consequently, the character of Jordan shows us what a person is like when they are only driven by sensuous pleasure. This person who is solely driven by sensuous pleasure may not be evil per se, but they are contemptible, shallow and misguided, as they seem to be pursuing fleeting moment of pleasure that will not assure them any significant meaning in their life. In this way, the character of Jordan shows that eradicating the tension between the pursuit of sensuous pleasure and the development of what is best in one’s self by ignoring the latter leads us to a life that while rich in certain regards seems ultimately vacuous and superficial. In this way the film reveals that there is a still a need for the notion of the development of what is best in one’s self, and that the striving this requires is not something that we can forgo in favour of easily bought pleasurable experiences.

The Alleged Right to National Self-Determination

Often people refer to the right to national self-determination as if it were an undeniable fact. For example we hear about the rights to national self- determination of Quebec, Catalonia, Chechnya, and Kurdistan. This right suggests that all nations should be able to control their own affairs, whether this is through the formation of an independent nation state, or providing the nation with greater control over their own affairs within an existing state. Furthermore, while this concept has become common parlance, especially in international politics, it seems that no such right is justifiable because respect for nations is derivative of respect for persons, and respect for persons does not require that each `nation` control its own affairs. Although, there are cases where human security and safety demand that a nation be given the ability to control its affairs.

It seems that respect for nations is derivative of respect for persons. For example, a state disrespects a nation if it tries to eliminate the nation`s culture and traditions, provided these traditions are not cruel or barbaric. But the reason that trying to eliminate a nation`s culture and traditions is disrespectful of the nation is because the persons who make up that nation are attached to their culture and their good is partially constituted by being able to participate in these practises. By trying to break up that culture and eliminate its practise we suggest that the good of the members of the nation are not important and do not need to be taken into account. Thus, it seems that respect for nations is derivative of respect for persons as disrespecting nations seem to be problematic because it involves disrespecting persons. For the remainder of this entry I will refer to this way of conceiving of a principle of respect for nations as a derivative principle of respect for nations.

Some might say nations are ethical entities that are entitled to respect and this is distinct from the respect we might show the persons who make up the nation, but any reason we seem to be able to think of for respecting a nation seems to deal with the dignity and well-being of persons. It is hard to know what is meant when people suggest that we respect the nation, as opposed to respecting the persons who make up that nation. There does not seem to be an ethically salient property of nations that merits additional respect over and above the respect we show for nations. For the rest of this entry I will refer to this conceptualization of the principle of respect for nations as a non-derivative principle of respect for nations.

One path that is available to a defender of a non-derivative principle of respect for nations would lie in considering respect for nations as a relational good, such that the good is not of some mysterious emergent property of the nation, but rather lies in a good that all members of the nation share. But, when we translate respect for nations into a relational good this means that we are taking the interests or goods of persons into account. We are just considering that individual`s good as in part constituted by a good that is shared. So, while the framing of the relational good approach is distinct from a derivative principle of respect for nations, both positions are considering the goods of individual persons as what fundamentally matters. Consequently, it seems that respect for nations derives from respect for persons.

Now, if the right to national self-determination must be derived from the goods of persons, whether taken in isolation, or as equals sharing in a good, then it seems that this right is not justified. This is so because in principle there is no reason to think that the good of persons is threatened if the nation that they are a part of does not control its own affairs. The fact that I am a member of Nation X living in a state with a majority population of Nation Y does not mean that my good, or my good as member of a nation, is threatened. Therefore, there does not seem to be a reason to think that in principle all nations ought to control their own affairs, as this is not necessary for protection of the goods of persons, and respect for those persons.

That said, there are many situations in which nations ought to be able to control their own affairs. If a minority nation exists within a state in which the majority nation is hostile towards the minority nation, then that minority nation surely needs their own state, as the minority nation`s members will be vulnerable to threats from a hostile majority. Similarly, if two nations existing under the same state cannot seem to peacefully co-exist then there is strong reason for each nation to have its own state to ensure the security of all. But these sorts of cases do not show a general right to self-determination, but merely that under certain circumstances it is in the interests of human security for a nation to control its own affairs. These cases should not be used ground a general right of national self-determination, but should be recognized as the exceptions that they are.

Considerations on The Diminishment of Humanity

As I am riding in public transit, wading through a crowd to get on the elevators or watching a group of strangers get drunk at a pub I often find myself feeling deeply contemptuous and nauseated by what humanity has become. No particular act by any agent triggers this sense of contempt, rather it seems to arise when I encounter a group of strangers acting in some banal, coarse or ordinary way. Furthermore, this feeling is not unique to me, but rather seems to be an element of industrial and post-industrial life. Many people speak of the way in which humans have become a herd, or sheep. Furthermore, we can see in the philosophy of Nietzsche and Tocquevelle as well as the literature of Dostoevsky and Lawrence a sense in which modern civilization has dwarfed humanity. For example, in Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover Connie states the following when she encounters life in contemporary England:

“Tevershall! That was Tevershall Merrie England! Shakespeare’s England! No, but the England of today, as Connie had realized since she had come to live in it. It was producing a new race of mankind, over-conscious in the money and social and political side, on the spontaneous, intuitive side dead,-but dead. Half-corpses all of them: but with a terrible insistent consciousness in the other half. There was something uncanny and underground about it all. It was an underworld. And quite incalculable. How shall we understand the reactions in half-corpses? When Connie saw the great lorries full of steel-workers from Sheffield, weird, distorted, smallish beings like men, off for an excursion to Matlock, her bowels fainted and she thought: Ah, God, what has man done to man? What have the leaders of men been doing to their fellow-men? They have reduced them to less than humanness and now there can be no fellowship anymore! It is just a nightmare.” (Lawrence,  181-182)

The particular vitalist tact on diminishment that Lawrence takes is of no interest to me here, but what is important is the sense that we get from Connie that man has been diminished and dwarfed as industrial civilization has progressed. Lawrence’s writing reinforces the presence of the experience of a sense of diminishment of humanity as a significant element of industrial and post-industrial life.

It is easy to dismiss this sense of the diminishment of mankind as navel gazing nostalgia for a different age, but whether or not this sense of the diminishment of mankind represents a valid critique of modern civilization we find ourselves encountered by this feeling. Thus we need to understand where this sense of diminishment originates and what underlies it. I will argue that this sense of diminishment of humanity is brought upon both by a valid judgment that certain forms of greatness have been banished from the world as we have moved towards industrial, liberal democratic societies, and by the experience of humanity as a mass of strangers. Furthermore, I will argue that it seems that this sense of diminishment gives us a false impression of the value of humanity, because through engagement with particular others we discover that while perhaps certain virtues have been banished from the world of man, mankind still has admirable qualities worth cherishing.

On one hand the sense of the diminishment of mankind does represent a valid judgment and longing for previous forms of excellence, greatness or virtue. For example, the ethic of the warrior that was central to the feudal aristocracy has generally been purged from our society, as the more egalitarian social forms of industrial or post-industrial liberal democracy would be endangered by these traits. The ethic of the warrior which allows one to face death head on and use violence to punish any foes that stand in the way of oneself or one’s cause would surely make somebody a threat to public order, a deeply unsavory employee and a citizen who could not be worked with. Consequently, for those who are drawn to admire the greatness of the warrior ethic the inhabitants of industrial and post-industrial societies will be diminished because of their feminine passivity and inability to use their physical strength and capabilities to assert their status. Furthermore, other virtues have also been purged from our world to greater and lesser degrees including ascetic ways of life, Roman or Athenian forms of civic devotion, magnanimity, and aristocratic generosity. Those who are drawn to admire any of these virtues cannot help but see modern humanity as diminished because it lacks these qualities. Thus, it seems that at least part of the experience of the diminishment of mankind represents the valid judgment that an admirable and desirable virtue or quality has been purged from industrial society and because of that human beings have been reduced in their dignity.

Contrastingly, another source of our sense of the diminishment of mankind is the experience of human beings as a mass of strangers. A central facet of life in industrial and post-industrial society is we often find ourselves confronted by masses of strangers. For example, when we take public transit we often are surrounded by a mass of humans that we do not have any pre-existing relation with. This also occurs when we go to register our vehicles, go to buy groceries and do many other common things. In this experience of the mass of strangers we see the acts of these strangers, but from the outside. We do not see why this person is taking public transit and why they push in front of us, or passively let everyone ahead before they enter. Furthermore, when encountering the mass of strangers we tend to see people engaging in actions that are completely ordinary, banal or mundane. None of the actions that tend to occur in spaces where we encounter the mass seems to stand out as extraordinary, excellent or great. I cannot think of a time in which I have encountered the mass of strangers and have been impressed by the greatness of some act. Most of the acts that occur in this context are not bad, but they are completely ordinary and unimpressive. Consequently, because of the ordinariness of actions that occur when encountering the mass, and the fact that we have no access to the internal, possibly impressive, motivations of the others within the mass, the value of humanity is not revealed through encounters with this mass of strangers. Thus, this experience of humanity of a mass of strangers tends to give rise to a diminished image of mankind as we tend to witness only ordinary actions in this context, and we do not see the possibly praiseworthy motivations of individual agents for their ordinary actions.

The experience of the mass of strangers does us a disservice as it makes us think that human beings are far more diminished than they in fact are. As was noted above when we encounter the mass of strangers we see humanity in a context in which any of humanity’s redeeming qualities are not immediately visible. One context in which the valuable qualities of humanity become far more apparent is through our engagement with concrete others. Typically when we engage with particular others we are not nauseated by their minute stature and diminishment. Rather, as we develop a deeper understanding of the person through conversing with them and getting to know them their valuable qualities reveal themselves. Even if we never become friends with this other we still will typically begin to find certain qualities that we can admire with them whether it is their confidence, courage, generosity, sense of humour, sensitivity, compassion, determination or integrity. It is through these small ordinary human engagements and conversations that we realize that the sense of diminishment we feel towards humanity may be correct in noting that certain virtues are no longer possible, or prevalent, but that this sense of diminishment does not mean that human beings are now something to be looked on with contempt. Put slightly differently, these engagements reveal that the valuable qualities of currently existing humans and through so doing show that while certain values may seem lost, value has not been eradicated from humanity.

Works Cited
Lawrence, D. H. Lady Chatterley’s Lover. 1st ed. New York: Chatham River Press, 1984. Print.

Preventing Suffering and the Abolition of Predators

The principle that we should always act to prevent suffering seems intuitive as it seems that a world without needless suffering would be far better than one in which suffering occurred regularly. But on reflection there seem to be circumstances when preventing suffering is absurd, if not horrifying, and these cases suggest that preventing suffering is but one good among many, rather than the supreme good.

The example I will examine to reveal the way in which preventing suffering is not the supreme good is the thought that we might abolish predators (ie lions, sharks etc) in order to prevent the suffering that they create in the world. In our current world while predators cause much suffering to their prey, they are necessary as an element of many ecosystems and these ecosystems would fall into tatters without their presence. But if predators became unnecessary then their lives would simply be a source of suffering, without any countervailing value in terms of preserving balance within an ecosystem. Furthermore, it is certainly conceivable that in the future as technology develops we will be able to control the environment in such a way that we no longer need to accept the natural ecosystems of earth as a given; for example we might have the technological power to construct ecosystems that are most beneficial to us and to other living creatures. For example, it is not inconceivable or implausible that at a time in the distant future we could abolish predators, in the literal sense of the term. Through genetic engineering we could turn lions, sharks and other predators into herbivores or scavengers. If this feat of genetic engineering were to arise in conjunction with the ability to control the ecosystem such that we did not need predators as an element of any particular ecosystem, then according to the principle that we should always act to prevent suffering it seems that we should abolish predators. In this case suffering would be dramatically reduced if predators were abolished through genetic engineering, as once predators are transformed into herbivores or even scavengers prey throughout the world would be free of a source of suffering that has typically threatened them. And yet there seems to be something deeply perverse about the proposition that we might abolish predators. This proposal seems to stink of hubris and absurdity, but what lies behind our misgivings towards it?

It is not completely clear what lies behind our misgivings towards the abolition of predators, but I think there are two general concerns that can articulate the reasons behind our uneasiness towards this particular variety of abolitionism. The first concern is the notion that each animal species has a form of goodness that is distinct to them that must be appreciated and respected. For example, we might say that the goodness of a lion is in part defined by being a good hunter and predator, and while we may fear the lion we have to appreciate the goodness expressed in and through its predatory activity. Consequently, on this understanding of the goodness of differing species we are disrespecting the goodness distinct to different species of predators by trying to turn them into creatures that are not predatory. Thus while it is true that it is good for humans to act to end suffering, this principle needs to be balanced against appreciating the value of the goodness of distinct species, including predators. As a result, we see that, according to this perspective, preventing suffering is not the supreme good, but merely one good that needs to be considered and appreciated. This first concern may not be endorsed by everyone who is made uneasy by the proposal to abolish predator, but it certainly articulates a coherent and plausible account of what might be wrong with a proposal to abolish predators.

The second concern that might underlie our uneasiness towards abolishing predators is the notion that somehow the natural order is not simply an instrument to be used towards whatever purpose, no matter how beneficent. On this account while humans and other creatures may use the natural world as an instrument to some degree, the natural world cannot be reduced to a mere instrument that can be transformed in whatever way seems convenient or beneficial; rather we must somehow respect the forms of life that the earth produces. But in abolishing predators humans would clearly be rendering the natural world into a mere instrument, as through such activity we are saying that it is permissible to transform nature in any way provided that it prevents suffering. Thus, the abolition of predators clearly does not respect the natural order. So, this perspective also offers us a reason to reject the idea that predators ought to be abolished in the name of preventing suffering as such abolition will render the natural world into a mere object and consequently disrespect it. Thus, according to this perspective preventing suffering is at most but one good among others, rather than the supreme good. It should be noted that the two perspectives outlined above do not exhaust the possible grounds on which we can oppose the abolition of predators, but they do seem to offer plausible grounds for such opposition.

While it is not clear on what grounds we should reject the proposal to abolish predators in the name of preventing suffering, the abolition of predators example show us that in particular cases the path that prevents the most suffering seems horrifying, troubling and absurd, and there are other values that matter beyond the alleviation of suffering. Consequently, preventing suffering is but one good among many rather than the supreme good; suffering may seem to be one the greatest evils on earth, but we need to be careful not to fall into the illusion of thinking that the only thing that we are called on to do, from an ethical perspective, is to prevent suffering. Suffering is surely an evil, but the abolition of predators shows us that acts that prevent suffering can be nearly as disturbing as the most intense form of suffering.